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The Psalm Tones of the Liber Usualis and The Modern Tradition of Psalmody In The Western Rite Orthodox Church

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate two forms of the Liturgy: the Mass, or Eucharistic service, and the Office.  The Divine Liturgy of the Office consists of a daily series of prayers, readings, hymns, and psalms to be spoken and sung at various hours of the day.  It is for this reason that it is also called the Liturgy of the Hours (The Liturgy of the Hours Volume III, 6).  This form of the liturgy is as old as the pre-schism Church itself with the command given by the Apostle Paul: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:23 [New King James Version]).”

The Church Fathers instituted prayer hours from older Jewish traditions of psalmody or psalm-singing and adapted it to Roman hours during the Roman occupation of Palestine (Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, Book X, Letter xcvii).  Within the plainchant tradition of the Western Church the Liber Usualis outlines the chant formula to be used in the Office for the singing of psalms.  These are known as the psalm tones (Liber Usualis, xxxij).  In this paper I will discuss the chanting of psalms within the Divine Office of the Western Rite Orthodox Christian communities in the U.S. and compare it to the rubrics outlined in the Liber Usualis.

A participant needs a source text in order to perform the chants and hymns and know the prayers to be spoken during the Office.  In the Eastern Church the Horologion (lit., “Book of Hours”) is used, and traditionally the Roman Catholic Church used the Roman Breviary; today the three volume Liturgy of the Hours has replaced it for use in the English language (The Liturgy of the Hours Volume III, 6).  In the tradition of Western Orthodoxy, the modern Office in English is outlined in The English Office Noted, published first in 2004 by St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church in Washington D.C. and approved for use by Orthodox Christians within the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (http://www.stgregoryoc.org/article/the-daily-office/).

First, the psalm tones used in The English Office Noted will be examined below.  There are nine psalm tones in total, labeled with Roman numerals I through VIII and including the Tonus Peregrinus (“wandering tone”).  They are written in an adapted form of modern notation as seen in Figure 1 with the prescription for chanting Psalm 1 in Tone I.

Fig 1. Psalm 1 in Tone I (The English Office Noted, 29).

Psalm Fig 1

The whole notes indicate the reciting tones, preceded by the intonations or anacruses sung at the beginning of the psalm, and the first reciting tone is followed by the mediant notated in eighth notes and quarters notes.  The bar line represents the end of half of a psalm phrase.  The second half of the psalm phrase receives its own reciting tone and the final cadential formula or termination is written, as with the mediant, using eighth and quarter notes.  As the number of syllables vary within lines of text, the number of notes can vary within the mediant and termination.  Figure 2 provides another example in the second psalm tone for Psalm 3.

Figure 2. Psalm 3 in Tone II (The English Office Noted, 30).

Psalm Fig 2

The psalms themselves come from the Biblical Book of Psalms, a collection of 151 scriptural poems in praise of God.  When singing in English in the Western Rite, an English translation of the psalms accompanies the psalm tones provided for each of them.  Specialized notation in the text is given so that the reader may interpret which syllables of the text are to be performed on the reciting tones, the mediant, and so forth (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  The Benedictus Dominus in Tone III (The English Office Noted, 15).

Psalm Fig 3

Capitalized words are to be sung with the intonation, with the following syllables to be chanted on the reciting tone.  The slash (/) indicates for the reader to chant the syllables that follow in the formula of the mediant, and the asterisk (*) corresponds with the bar line in the psalm tone and the beginning of chant on the next reciting tone.  The second slash in each line of psalmody indicates the beginning of the termination. Figure 4 presents an interpretation of the first line of the Benedictus Dominus from Figure 3.

Figure 4. Realization of Benedictus Dominus using psalmody rubric.

Psalm Fig 4

The challenge of psalmody using the method of The English Office Noted lies in calculating the number of syllables for each chant on the mediant and termination.  However, this is not different than the method prescribed in the Liber Usualis.  Neither of the two rubrics notate every line of the psalms to a specific pitch.  The chanters are expected to remember the psalm tone formula and adapt it to the lines of psalm text (Liber Usualis, 112-113).  Compare the Benedictus on Tone III with the outline for this psalm tone provided in Liber Usualis (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Rubric for Tone III (Liber Usualis, 114).

Psalm Fig 5

There are some subtle differences between the two tones.  For one, the Liber Usualis only uses music ficta on B♭.  Therefore, the F♯ Aeolian in The English Office Noted is merely a transposition of the original A Aeolian.  The Liber Usualis also uses neumatic notation because there is no need in plainchant to indicate precise rhythmic proportions and divisions, but the pitch content corresponds exactly in transposition.  If the termination species labeled “a²” is used, then the intonation, tenor (i.e., reciting tone), mediant, second tenor, and the termination are all identical to the version of Tone III used in the Benedictus in Figures 3 and 4.

The psalm tones of the Liber Usualis, however, also contain a flexus, or “flex” as well as the reciting tone of the first tenor.  This flexus is another pitch, usually a second or a third down from the reciting tone that is chanted in the middle of an especially long line of a psalm to break it up and add some variety (Liber Usualis, xxxij).  This is indicated by a cross (†) seen under the flexus in Figure 5.  This symbol is also used in the text of psalms in The English Office Noted (Figure 6) and seems to indicate the performance of a flexus as well, although it is not noted in any of the provided psalm tones.

Figure 6. Flexus notated within the text of the Benedictus (The English Office Noted, 15).

Psalm Fig 6The English Office Noted and Liber Usualis are not always in such perfect agreement.  By far the largest meaningful variation between the two is in the diversity of terminations found in the Liber Usualis.  Not all of these are represented in the Western Rite English psalmody.  Occasionally a slight variation to the psalm tone is found in the psalter of The English Office Noted that does not match the prescriptions of the Liber Usualis.  Psalm 2 (Figure 7) is in Tone III like the Benedictus, and though it also uses termination “b” from the Liber Usualis, the mediant is altered with the addition of a lower neighbor which is not found in the second species of mediant found in Figure 5.

Figure 7. Psalm 2 in Tone III.

Psalm Fig 7The mediant has an additional pitch not found in Liber Usualis (The English Office Noted, 29).

It can be argued that The English Office Noted utilizes alternative species of the mediant not provided in Liber Usualis.  In the example in Figure 7 the mediant is clearly derivative of the second species of mediant found in Figure 5.  Figure 8 demonstrates the direct correspondence between the two sources in the rubric for Tone II.

Figure 8. Second Tone of Liber Usualis using first species of mediant corresponds to Tone II of  The English Office Noted (Liber Usualis, 114 & The English Office Noted, 30).

Psalm Fig 8Even the tonus peregrinus from both sources are an exact match, represented crucially by a different reciting tone after the mediant (and from whence it gets its Latin name as a “wandering tone”).  With the exception of slight variations in the mediant and termination formulae, the psalm tones represented in The English Office Noted are directly derivative of those prescribed in Liber Usualis for the chanting of psalmody.

The correspondence may not be surprising.  The Anglican source for singing the Office is The Plainsong Psalter which, like The English Office Noted, uses the same nine psalm tones with very little variation from the neumatic rubric of the Liber Usualis.  The most significant difference is that the Anglican source does not include the anacruses or intonations, preferring to notate that part of the psalmody independently (The Plainsong Psalter, xv-xvii).  The Office Liturgy, preserved as it has been in Western Europe since the eleventh century, varies little from these three sources.  In practice the greatest different is merely language: The English Office Noted is in the dominant vernacular for Western Rite Orthodox Christians in North America, and the Liber Usualis retains the original Latin texts of the Roman Rite from which the (English) Western Orthodox Rite is ultimately derived (http://www.stgregoryoc.org/liturgy/).

There are, however, major liturgical differences.  The English Office Noted only gives the reader the chants, psalm tones, antiphons, hymns, and texts for matins (morning) and vespers (evening) services with a single daily rubric for compline (night).  The Liturgy of the Hours in Roman Catholicism includes multiple prayer hours: matins (early morning), lauds (morning), terce (mid-morning), sext (midday), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night).  Liber Usualis is divided into individual days of prayer within the Gregorian calendar year with specific readings and psalms appropriate for each.  This is contrasted with the thirty day cycle for the Office outlined in The English Office Noted.  In other words, while one reads through the Liber Usualis only once a year, one reads through the Western Rite Orthodox Office twelve times during the liturgical year.  This creates significant daily differences in the liturgy itself despite the compelling similarities in the psalmody rubrics.

As an example consider Psalm 112 (“Beatus vir qui timet Dominum” or “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord”).  This would be sung amongst other places at Matins on the first Sunday of February in Tone V according to the Liber Usualis (p. 145).  In the Western Rite Orthodox Office, this is to be sung in Tone VII on the twenty-second day of the month, placing it well beyond the first Sunday of February (The English Office Noted, 170).  The performance of Psalm 112 is thus highly variable in the two liturgies.  The liturgies are entirely dissimilar even though they utilize nearly identical psalm tones for psalmody chant.

It is unclear how the psalm tones are chosen in either liturgy.  The Liber Usualis implies in its extensive interpretation rules that certain poetic qualities of the Latin texts make some psalm tones preferable to others in some contexts (Liber Usualis, xvij-xxxij).  While it seems possible that language difference could have affected the different choice of psalm tones prescribed in The English Office Noted, it is not consistent with the Anglican liturgy in English.  The Plainsong Psalter prescribes Tone V for chanting Psalm 1 (Figure 9) whereas the Western Rite Orthodox Office indicates Tone I (Figure 1 above).

Figure 9.  Psalm 1 chanted on Tone V (The Plainsong Psalter, 1).

Psalm Fig 9In spite of the differences between the rubrics of the Liber Usualis and The English Office Noted, the fact that a person proficient in psalmody can meet with considerable success engaging in either of the two Divine Office liturgies is remarkable.  Some aspects of modern psalm chanting in Roman Catholicism and Western Orthodoxy (and indeed Anglicanism) can be heard today that were heard as many as ten centuries ago, most notably the psalm tones themselves.  For modern Christians this provides both a liturgical and a musical-cultural link to Western European Christianity before the schism of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Western Rite Orthodox Christians of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America as well as Roman Catholics can experience a relatively unbroken tradition of observing the Divine Liturgy of the Office in the singing of psalms.  Both The Liber Usualis and The English Office Noted give Christians today a chance to pray the same way Christians have daily for generations of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in Western Europe.  Unlike plainchant during the Mass, which has fallen out of use in the Western Church over the past several centuries, psalmody offers a liturgical singing tradition that better represents the original musical-cultural ethos of Christian liturgical music.


The English Office Noted. Washington D.C.: St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church, 2007.

The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol III. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1975.

The Benedictine Monks of Solesmes. Liber Usualis. New York: The Declee Company, 1961.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music (9th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.

Most Rev. Bishop Elijah, ed. The Psalter: A Book of Hours. Roseville, CA: Dry Bones Press, Inc., 2001.

Litton, James, ed. The Plainsong Psalter. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1988.

Pliny the Younger, Epistulae

St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church. “Liturgical Resources.” Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.stgregoryoc.org/liturgy/

St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church. “The Daily Office.” Accessed November 11, 2014, http://www.stgregoryoc.org/article/the-daily-office/